News & Updates: Port Bureau News: February 2020

Captain's Corner: Uniting Through Technology

Monday, March 9, 2020  
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By CAPT Bill Diehl, GHPB President

Disney+ is an online streaming service that launched last November to over 10 million subscribers. Despite its initial technical difficulties, subscribers stuck with them, and it now looks to be expanding into global markets. As I sat on the couch looking at the service the other night, I was struck by their branding line up that reads Disney + Pixar + Marvel + Star Wars + National Geographic. What surprised me was how Disney was able to bundle these once disparate genres into an advantageous product for their company.

Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company

On the surface, it might seem that business along the Ship Channel might not have much in common with the House of Mouse, yet the parallel is there. Disney has had its ups and downs since it began nearly 100 years ago, but it has persevered. Now, by being innovative through technology, they are expanding their product line to entirely new markets and remaining a relevant and successful company into the 21st century.

That kind of history is familiar to us in the port region. We know about perseverance and innovation – and the value of technology in making port business better and more efficient than ever. Since the early 2000s, the Port Bureau has partnered with the Houston Pilots to distribute real-time vessel movement information using the Harborlights program. Harborlights has allowed users from tugs, line handlers, terminals, cargo surveyors, etc., access to vessel schedules in Houston. This has allowed us to move more ships safely than any other port in the United States. However, with the remarkable uptick in chemical ships, which call on multiple terminals per port visit, we have seen the scheduling efficiency for these vessels fall. The Port Bureau’s Efficiency Committee placed the cost of that inefficiency at $360 million a year, which doesn’t even include the safety and environmental costs of inefficient vessel movements.

 Rather than reinvent the wheel, the Efficiency Committee, with generous support and leadership from Shell, has decided to test a robust vessel and terminal scheduling system called Pronto that has been used successfully in the Port of Rotterdam. Later this spring, the Efficiency Committee will see if Pronto can really help us turn the ships in the port better, faster, and cheaper with more predicable information. Our initial target goal is a 20% reduction in costs for chemical tanker calls (a $72 million per year savings).

Doing this will require our port region to unite information that has previously been disparate. In the trial alone, there are over 20 participating companies, including carriers, terminals, pilots, line handlers, and inspectors. By providing a single platform to view and compare these data and to quickly identify conflicts or opportunities, Pronto will enable our port community to make more informed decisions about vessel movements. This, in turn, will improve the efficiency and predictability of their port turnaround times. The cost-savings potential is promising.

Our belief is that technology paired with the willingness to change and innovate will bring remarkable results to our port. We plan on expanding the program to all ship types and terminals if the chemical ship trial proves successful. Continued cooperation and collaboration on behalf of our industry is sure to spark yet more inventive use of technology that benefits everyone – and that is something the Port Bureau always wants to champion. We invite you to unite with us in the mission to advance ongoing progress and prosperity in the port region. To quote from Disney’s newest character in the line-up, The Mandalorian: This is the way!


About the Author

CAPT Bill Diehl, USCG (Ret.), P.E. is president of the Greater Houston Port Bureau. Utilizing his 30+ years of marine safety and port operations experience, he guides the Port Bureau in bringing members and community partners together for cooperation and collaboration to improve and advance the port region.